The Lost Oasis

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From:  fieldnotes, 11/17/00 – 12/9/00

Setting down Ralph Bagnold’s Libyan Sands, I try to imagine an unbroken tract of desert stretching for a thousand empty miles.  But I can’t do it.  The image is so vast and formless it soon becomes a meditation.  The possibility of true desert drifts into the imagination, like those photos of advancing dunes overtaking a village on the edge of the sands. 

I find myself setting work aside to read old expedition reports from the Royal Geographical Society.  I scan through reels of microfilm, finding articles from The Times of London, and search online for any references to the Western Desert of Egypt.  A some point I recognize what I’m doing – planning a trip to the one of the world’s most extreme deserts. 

If you climb mountains, sooner or later you’ll be drawn to the highest ones.  If you explore deserts, you’ll want to travel to the most remote, absolute deserts in the world.  Geologists give Death Valley, the driest place in the United States, a rating of 7 on the aridity scale; the Western Desert weighs in at an amazing 200.  Due to the great distances and total lack of water, the deep sands and occasional minefields, coupled with the difficulty of obtaining permits, it remains the least traveled corner of the Sahara. 

In Luxor we learn the army has revoked the expedition permits on a technicality.  Our group has gathered in the lobby of the Hotel St. Joseph, listening to trip leader András Zboray outline the situation.  “We have” says the Hungarian, “two options: end the trip at this point or try dodging the checkpoints and head into the desert without permits.” 

While there is a long tradition in the Sahara of avoiding the authorities, the Swiss are uncomfortable with the prospect.  András tells us to think it over and leaves to make some phone calls.  Ursina asks what I intend to do.  “Whatever it takes to get there.  I’ll ride a camel if necessary.” 

András has a passion for exploring the most remote corners of the Western Desert.  He has made several trips there, gathering like-minded individuals to share the expenses of a sixteen-day expedition – and the hazards.  He is following in the footsteps of another Hungarian, Lázló Almásy, who explored this region in the 1930s and ended up as a character in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient.  András dismisses any parallels, but he speaks with a cultured British accent and could easily pass as a Englishman. 

By morning only one of the five Swiss has backed out.  The others, all veteran desert travelers, will join two Russians and another American.  The Egyptian drivers take it all in stride and have already loaded the three Model 75 Land Cruisers.  All supplies, including water and gas for sixteen days, will be carried in three vehicles.  Each person is rationed to three liters of water a day with none to spare for washing.  “In the desert,” András says, “you must sacrifice comfort for range.” 

An old Egyptian walks by and notices our preparations.  “Heia safari!” he tells me, the Swahili for “travel on.”
Our party soon leaves Luxor, intending to take the direct road across the desert to Kharga, the first oasis.  András is placing his hopes on going beyond it to the distant oasis of Dakhla where security is more lax.  We don’t get far.  An Egyptian soldier turns us back at the first checkpoint outside town.  Without giving an explanation, the military has closed the direct road to Kharga.  We must wait until mid-afternoon, he tells us, for the soldiers to escort us north along the Nile to the city of Asyut.  This will add twelve hours to our trip and re-route us through the fundamentalist strongholds along the river – exactly where the authorities in Cairo had refused to let us travel due to the danger of a terrorist attack. 

“We would rather have an angry tourist,” the soldier tells our head driver Khaled, “than a dead one.” 
Khaled returns to deliver the news and adds a resigned, “Welcome to Egypt.”



The sanctuary of Amun

So we wait.  If there is an art to waiting, Egypt is the place to practice it.  Across the street, a merchant sits on a folding chair as still as a hunter in a blind, and a soldier waits nearby, rifle slung across his back.  Two men sip coffee at the corner and watch the palm trees along the Nile, a felucca drifting past, and the desert beyond.  Tomorrow they will watch the river, a boat, and again the desert.  In Egypt you learn to wait without expecting an end to waiting.

Agreeing to meet at the Winter Palace Hotel in an hour and a half, we scatter.  Some take the taxi to Karnak and some shop.  I walk down the street to Luxor Temple, more out of a sense of duty than desire.  Ancient Egypt with its culture of death has never had a claim on me.  Having only known it from books, I find its fine art no more than flowers on a grave, the ruins an open-air mortuary.  With ticket in hand and few expectations, I enter the grounds of a temple built 3,400 years ago.

It’s still early and few tourists have arrived, but I’m unable to pull myself away from the beautiful relief carvings at the gateway.  I’m beginning to understand the attraction when the first wave hits.  A tour group crowds around the granite obelisk, forcing me to squeeze past them into the courtyard of Ramses II.  But here nothing clicks.  The place is empty, swept clean.  Impressive architecture, yes, but no spark, no connection to the life it once held.  Instead of uncovering the past, archeology can become a way to exorcise it.

Immense columns flank the Colonnade as I work back to the inner chamber, a place already ancient when Alexander the Great appeared on the scene.  And then in the Sanctuary of the Sacred Boat of Amun, I sense something different.  In this enclosure the past still has a pull to it, and it may have something to do with the annual ceremony, tremendously important to the Egyptians, that once took place here.

During the Opet festival, priests took the icons of Amun, his wife Mut, and their son Khonsu from Karnak to Luxor.  They placed the gods on separate barges and transported them up the Nile as crowds thronged the riverbanks.  Many danced while others prayed, bending low to kiss the ground.  Priests clapped in time to the steady beat of drummers as soldiers leaned against the tow ropes and boatmen bent to the oars.  At Luxor they reached the Egyptian place of origin, where life came into being as a mound of earth rising out of the waters of chaos.  Here the pharaoh joined the procession and entered the temple to undergo the rites of renewal.  In this place, his divine and human natures were again merged into one. 

Entering a back room, I’m surprised to find the name “Rimbaud” carved high on a wall, the height sand had drifted before excavations began.  Arthur Rimbaud, the whirling, spun-out poet and patron saint of artistic rebels from Picasso to Jim Morrison, wrote “The Drunken Boat” at the age of seventeen, and for a few more years pushed poetry to the edge of madness.  When he left France he never wrote again.  Rimbaud became a coffee trader in East Africa, running guns on the side, and probably passed through Luxor in 1881.  He was known to travel dressed as an Islamic holy man at times, and that’s how I think of him – mad poet disguised as a holy man standing alone in the sand-buried sanctuary of Amun.  

Returning through the courtyard, I hear the call to prayer and look up.  A mosque I hadn’t noticed rises from the foundation stones of the ancient temple.  None of the tourists pay attention to the voice blaring over a loudspeaker – the minor key, the suffering tone, the pleading cry.  We are more comfortable with empty temples and dead gods than living ones.  I find the presence of the mosque intriguing, in some way a link to the old temple.  Arriving in Luxor last night, I saw a dark shape looming over the ruins topped by a green neon sign in Arabic.  I asked Khaled what it said. 

“Allah,” he told me without having to look.

Unable to locate an entrance to it, I leave the archeological compound through a back gate.  The streets beyond are crowded but without a foreigner in sight.  I head toward the yellow walls of the mosque where a flight of steps leads up to a terrace enclosed by a parapet wall.  Clusters of men, dressed in galabias and turbans stand talking outside what appears to be an entrance.

I pass beggars on the bottom step and reach the terrace where an imam is keeping watch.  He cuts me off and immediately asks in broken English where I’m from.  Friends back home warned me to avoid the mosques and not to admit I was an American if anyone asked.  Good advice, I suppose.  Three years before, Islamic terrorists attacked a crowd of tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut near Luxor.  They systematically hunted down those hiding in the ruins, killing more than sixty of them. 

“The Grand Canyon” I answer, trying to keep politics out of it and wrongly assuming everybody knows where that is.

“Ah, Canada!” he says, smiling.

“No,” I say, and his smile fades.  “Arizona.”

“Ah, Australia!”  The smile returns.

“No, America.” 

He thinks a moment and then brightens up.  “Yes, South America; come with me.” 

Before I can respond, he leads me toward the door of the mosque and then stops, having second thoughts.  “We believe in one God,” he says, eyeing me closely.  “And down here the prophets.  And down here the Hebrews, the Christians, the Muslims.  Only God up there.”  He raises his eyes as he rests a hand on his heart.
“Yes,” I tell him, “one God, that is what I believe.”

He smiles and takes me inside, going from the glare of late morning into the cool interior.  There are no outsiders here.  A woman, kneeling nearby, nervously takes my shoes, and we enter a side room.  Elders sit cross-legged on carpets, talking among themselves.  The conversation stops when we appear, and no one smiles.  There is a gaunt sternness to these men, all bearded and draped in robes.  They give me a hard look, which I take as their normal expression, before granting us permission to enter.  We slip past them to the domed mausoleum of their founder, Sidi Abu’l Haggag, a Sufi sheikh who died in A.D. 1243.  “A good man,” the guide says, placing a hand on his heart.  “He feed the hungry, take care of the orphans, help poor people.”
Two young Egyptians in western dress touch the green satin covering as they circle the saint’s tomb and pray.  We continue through a labyrinth of corridors and rooms with various points of interest I only half catch.  And then over a doorway I see a cartouche carved on the underside of a stone lintel, salvaged from the old temple.  Most of the mosque dates to the 19th century, but a thousand years ago the followers of Mohammed built a minaret on ruins dating back another couple of thousand years.  The two of us continue into the prayer hall where a handful of men are kneeling.  No women are present.  In a single motion they bend forward and touch their faces to the stone floor.

We walk past them to a window at the rear of the hall.  Smiling, the Egyptian presents the finest view of Luxor Temple.  As Muslims pray behind us, I look down on the ancient courtyard of Ramses, the perspective heightening the monumental effect and the presence of worshippers bringing it alive. 

A younger man with an unflinching stare soon appears, and my guide introduces him as the head man.  Bearded and wearing dark brown robes, he cautiously welcomes me to the mosque.  The guide now makes his pitch, informing me it would be an appropriate time to make a donation to the orphans’ fund. 

“Of course,” I tell him, “I will do what I can to help.”  Reaching into my pocket, I find only a hundred-pound Egyptian note worth about $20.  “I’ll get change and come back.”

“We can get change,” he says, but I hesitate.  Being an easy mark, a stranger in a land growing stranger by the day, I’m on guard.  He looks at me and sweeps an arm overhead.  “No, not here.  In this place you can trust.”  I look at him, weighing his words.  “We are not Italians,” he continues; “we are not Mafia.”  Wondering where he came up with that, I hand him the bill.  He immediately passes it to a boy who has suddenly materialized out of nowhere.  The kid runs off, and I don’t expect to see the money again.

I retrieve my shoes, he slips on his sandals, and we walk outside to wait.  From the terrace I watch the bustle of the town and exchange a word or two with the Egyptian.  Ten minutes pass.  He says something I don’t catch and disappears around the corner.  Well that’s it, I figure.  But in a moment he’s back, and soon the boy returns with the correct change.  I leave a donation of twenty pounds and walk down to the hotel to meet the others. 
András and Khaled are holding down a table at the Winter Palace, drinking Stella beer and waiting.  The Hungarian is as anxious to get moving as I am.  We’ve come here for the desert, and Luxor is a turning away from the desert.  “I could handle their bureaucracy,” he says, “if it worked.  Egyptian bureaucracy doesn’t work.  Each official changes the rules, making it impossible to know the system.  I just want to get out of the Nile Valley.” 

When I mention my visit with the imam, he says the Sufi from that mosque hold an annual festival where they carry a boat around the town.  They call it the Sheikh’s boat rather than the boat of Amun, but the idea’s the same.  During the celebration, the locals drum and dance, smoke hashish and sing.  The holy men whirl with their eyes closed to the playing of flutes and drums, their heads shaking wildly from side to side until they reach an ecstatic state and collapse.  “It’s a carry-over from the time of the pharaohs,” András says.

Next:  The night ride to Asyut

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New World part 1 of 3

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